RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Cycling in the Cusco Region of Peru

by Tracey Maund


It was not the best birthday I have had. Although the blizzard had stopped and there were clear patches in the sky, our bikes had disappeared. We cooked chocolate porridge, loaded ourselves with the panniers and tramped slowly back to Tinqui.

The loss of a bike is not just the loss of a possession; without a bike, you are not a cyclist. As a cyclist you soar and dive, you engage with the mountains; you suffer picturesquely and earn your place in the landscape; you take yourself to your limits, you are fully alive. Bikeless, you are reduced to frustrated passivity.

But much of the thrill of adventurous travel (if we can put our disasters down to adventure rather than fecklessness) is the unexpected. We didn't know how cycle-camping in Peru's mountains would work out; we didn't know what the landscape would look like. One can look at maps, and pictures in guidebooks, and form fragments of a mental picture but the whole three-dimensional feel of the place is unimaginable.

route map

We flew to Cusco via Lima. At 3400m, Cusco was higher than we had ever cycled before, and it's certainly high enough for the altitude to be noticeable. At our hotel we were made to fill in endless forms as some sort of acclimatisation procedure, and advised to rest for a few hours. And you're not opening your presents until after breakfast. We gave ourselves a generous acclimatisation rest of 1.5 seconds, reassembled the bikes with frenzied glee and hurtled into town, scattering a hail of allen bolts.


Cusco was the Inca capital, and the Spanish colonial buildings are built over the massive Inca walls. It is heaving with gringos and there are lots of interesting restaurants. It's in a high landscape of red scrubby mountains. To the northeast there is a plateau, then the deep Urubamba valley, then a range of mountains, and then the land drops infinitely slowly into the jungle. Our first excursion would be over these mountains and back again.


We climbed slowly onto the plateau on a good paved road; the landscape was big in a rolling sort of way, and generally given over to farming. Then, suddenly, there were the mountains: an extravagant snowy range right across the horizon.


We stayed a couple of nights in the Sacred Valley, partly for acclimatisation, more perhaps to maintain at least on average a comfortable living. Well-heeled tourists come here to "do" Machu Picchu so there are luxury hotels here and there aren't any beyond the mountains.


We stocked up on food in Calca, where the mountain road leaves the valley. High above the town, rocky tops of the mountains pull scary faces in an attempt to intimidate the traveller. The road is unsurfaced, as it will be all the way back to Ollantaytambo, and climbs steeply at first; the valley is narrow, part forested, part terraced. Not long after Calca are the Machacanca thermal baths. Colin swam; I didn't (I swim with the grace and elegance of a cat) and instead guarded the bikes from the local inquisitive boys. I asked them what "hola" was in Quechua, and apparently it is "allillienku kashenku". Ha, that's nothing, I said, and responded with "Pan welwch olau coch, sefwch yma". (We'll keep a welcome in the hillsides).


The road continued up through forests, and then the valley began to open out into a bowl surrounded by rocky peaks. We made good progress, and the cycling was no problem, but some time we would have to find somewhere to camp and we had no idea how successful we would be. I have wild camped before, but only in Europe, where it is safe. We had very little information about the logistics of the trip we were doing. 'Most accounts of this circuit are by tour groups, who use motor transport to do all the climbing and have local guides to negotiate camps in football fields. But Omar Zarzar, a mountain bike guide from Cusco, had done this circuit as far as Quillabamba, and we had his account. He had camped hereabouts. We set up the tent in the most secluded spot we could find, though, given the vast openness of the terrain, was visible from 90% of the road. Indeed it wasn't long before one of the locals appeared. He said that it wasn't safe here as there were robbers and dogs, but we could come to his house. We weren't sure what to make of this, but we didn't think we had much option but to follow. Simeon turned out to be a good sort, though his house was hard to get to with laden bikes.


Machu Picchu

We had most of the afternoon to try to work out how to use our stove. We suggest that it is a good idea to learn how to use a stove before trying it out at 4000m in near freezing temperatures. Despite its worrying tubercular cough, we cooked dinner. Simeon took pity on us and gave us some potatoes - a delicious knobbly variety as yet undiscovered by Waitrose. At breakfast time the stove gave us its opinion of early starts, and we could only persuade it to provide us with a candle-like flame. Very romantic, but we would get breakfast quicker by going back to Yucay.


Simeon and Margarita helped us with the bikes back to the road; Simeon had a bike and came with us to the junction with the Amparaes road. It was a stunning day. Once we were past the junction, the landscape was utterly empty of other people and the sense of remoteness was overwhelming. The road swings over to the other side of the valley and climbs in big loops. There were llamas on the road, and evidently they owned it. Colin said that farmers in the Pyrenees have imported llamas to protect their sheep from wolves. They trample on the wolves. So we tried looking unlike wolves. This worked, because the llamas didn't trample on us. We reached the snowline at 4200m, and the pass wasn't much further at 4300m. There were beautiful snowy peaks around, and far off in the south we could see Nevado Ausangate.


The road zigzagged down the other valley and gradually the sights of the mountains were fewer, and then no more; the grasses gave over to trees, and there were villages and people. Lares turned up in time for lunch, a two-shop town. We had planned to go further down, but given our difficulties with camping, we stopped here, because up a pretty side valley are a set of open-air thermal baths, where you can camp safely.


The road continues on the shady side of the trench-like valley. For a couple of hours, with nothing to do but freewheel, we were perishingly cold. There were frequent fords through side streams, and the fords are signposted "baden", which must amuse German visitors no end. It got rapidly hotter, and the vegetation more jungly. By early afternoon we were in Quebrada Honda, a largish concretey town with a hotel. Omar had stayed here, and, as before, given we had no idea of the camping prospects lower down, we stopped. The hotel was basic and grubby, and what was worse, when checking our schedule later, we found that we were getting behind rapidly. We now had to get to Quillabamba in one day; 100km is straightforward enough on tarmac, but who knew what state the road would be in, and how much climbing it had? And if the looming killer day tomorrow wasn't enough, we had to endure the killer night. There was a party with loud and horrible music about a block away. We left at dawn.


At first it was easy; despite the sleepless night, we were relatively fresh, the air was cool, and it was downhill. The valley widens, the river sashays about the valley floor, and the road rises around a bluff to give you a lovely view. There are lush plantations of banana and papaya, and fabulous red flower trees. At Quello Uno, the Lares meets the Urubamba, and we now had to go up. The road and the sun conspired, and threw us a stiff climb in midday heat; and so it continued. In compensation, the scenery was fabulous: the mountains near vertical and wooded, like you see in the pictures of Machu Picchu, which is hardly surprising. Cruelly, the only restaurants anywhere near lunchtime were in Echarate, up a climb like a mini Alpe d~Huez (in fact, only 200m) where we talked to a young man who spoke excellent English, and who gave us some bananas. So Echarate is forgiven, but only just.

We were truly into the spirit of cycle touring. The scenery was doing its best, but efforts at appreciation of our surroundings had long been sacrificed favour of getting the miles in. We were only interested in the road surface ar our handlebars.

"Are you looking at the scenery, because I'm not?".
"No, I'm looking at my mileometer".

Thankfully Quillabamba has a decent hotel, and given that the 100km had somehow crammed in 1700m of climbing, we deserved it. It also has fabulous market where we bought the best avocado of our lives; we deserved that too.